Uncertain is a village on the edge of a sublime lake in Texas. It's called Caddo Lake, and the Texans who live around it are supported by it in one way or another. These poor and working-class Texans are not exactly at the end of the world. They have access to the internet and the latest video games, and they keep track of the wildlife with infrared cameras. But they are also exposed to and have a profoundly religious respect for the raw power of nature. One inhabitant of Uncertain keeps his doors open at night for a raccoon. It enters, eats some food, plays with the dog, and leaves. This is life on the lake.
"Uncertain is not on the way to anywhere. You've got to either know where you're goin' or be lost to find it," explains the sheriff of the county. He also says that many of the people who live in Uncertain had to leave society behind and rebuild their lives. In another scene, we are told there are not many women in that part of the world. The men here are mighty lonely. Uncertain, which has a church called Uncertain Church, contains all the elements of a Southern gothic: the mysterious lake, the secrets deep in the souls of the inhabitants like the secrets at the bottom of the lake, the sheriff, the crime, the confessions, the city slicker trying to solve it all.
The crime in the film? The one the city slicker is trying to solve? It was committed by a person who owned a fish tank. He or she dumped its contents into Caddo Lake, and these contents included a floating weed, salvinia, that's from Brazil and is beloved by fish-tanks owners because of its exotic look. Once in the lake, the weed spread and began killing anything that lived in the water.
The documentary named for the town has three main characters (Zach, Wayne, and Henry), one of whom (Henry) inspired Seattle-based documentarians Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands to make the film. "We had just finished a doc in Louisiana and wanted to shoot something new. We looked at the map and saw there was town called Uncertain," explains Sandilands over the phone—she and McNicol, a Brit, run a marketing company, Lucid Inc. "We visited the town. It had a flea market and interesting people. But then we saw the lake and decided to make a short film. When we first visited Uncertain, the mayor recommended that we get Henry to show us around the lake... We got into his boat, and right there we started to make the film." They spent the next two years, 2013 to 2014, working on what turned into a feature-length film.
The result? A work that combines personal confessions with sublime beauty and a pending ecological disaster. It's also a film about the kind of people who voted for Trump. "They are fiercely independent," Sandilands says. "And you have to understand why Trump makes a lot of sense to them... I voted for Hillary, but spending time with these people helped me make connections with them... I know that sounds like a cliché, but it's what actually happened. Now, we made the documentary when Trump was still just a reality TV star, still doing The Apprentice. And so the film is not political. But if we had made it today, it certainly would have been political. People would have talked about Trump. But when we made the documentary, we had no agenda or idea of where it was going to go. We saw the place, and that was basically how things got started.
"We are the kind of filmmakers who do not start with an idea or concept. We find the concept while making the work. This is how we approached Uncertain."
During this process, two of the main characters reveal really dark secrets. One of the secrets involves an outright murder. Yes, the confessor looks and sounds like a nice guy, but he is a murderer—he shot a man right in the face. "The people we interviewed and worked with trusted us," explains Sandilands, "which is why we are now a little secretive about our current [Seattle area] projects. But what happened is we showed a draft of our doc at a festival, True/False, and producers from reality TV were there, and they thought the town would make a great reality TV show. And they encouraged production teams to go down to Uncertain and film bar fights and things like that. And those filmmakers told the people we had worked closely with for two years that they were working with us. We had to tell them the truth and win their trust again."
The film, however, ends on a very positive note: The lake people and the city slicker (who ends up being a scientist) join forces, and they manage to overcome a little trouble together.